Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday. All Americans know, or think they know, about the "first Thanksgiving" celebration among helpful American Indians and grateful Pilgrims. Some Americans know, at least vaguely, that the national tradition is also connected to war. Abraham Lincoln began the annual observance in 1863, as the Civil War was nearing its bloody crescendo, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the federal holiday official by signing a bill in December 1941, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. But hey, those wars happened a long time ago, and they were noble wars, and the good guys won. As the twentieth century spun on, Thanksgiving became synonymous with plenty, even excess, prompting an annual round of reduced-fat recipes, dieting tips, and warnings about the lethargy brought on by too much turkey. The dominant image was Norman Rockwell's iconic "Freedom from Want," another World War II artifact symbolizing all that was right with America and could be right with the world following an Allied victory.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), America's foremost theologian, held forth a very different vision in his 1739 Thanksgiving sermon.

Naturally, Edwards could have known nothing of the Civil War or World War II. He did know about cooperation and conflicts between European settlers and American Indians; in 1750, having been forced from his prestigious Northampton parish, he became a missionary to the Housatonic Indians. But no meditations on ethnic harmony, national success, or bountiful harvests informed his sermon. Instead, he took as his text Luke 8:2-3 (NIV): "and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."

What, you might ask, has this to do with corn on the cob? The direct connection is the labor of women as cooks and caregivers. Before you dismiss this idea as hopelessly backward and sexist, read what Edwards said about the women who served the disciples:

How suitable and becoming was the behavior of those women that when Christ had been their deliverer from such grievous calamities, they thus showed their dear love and gratitude to him, and fed and clothed him as long as he lived, and prepared for an embalming of him when he was dead. How suitable and amiable was the behavior of Mary Magdalene, that had been a notorious sinner and out of whom Christ cast seven devils, in following Christ ever after wherever he went, to provide meat and drink for him while he lived, from a dear love which she always had for him, and followed him to the cross, and followed him to the grave, and was the most [?] of all in doing him honor at his death.

The members of Edwards's congregation could not minister directly to Christ, so he exhorted them—men and women—to minister to "the least of these" in his stead. Edwards called for an active ministry: "We are not only to wait till the poor come to our houses a-begging, but we are to bring ‘em to our houses (Isa. 58:7). … We are not to wait till they come to our houses, but we are to go to theirs. This is said to be pure and undefiled religion (Jam. 1:27)." As further incentive, Edwards stressed that none of this work would come close to the effort Christ expended on our behalf, yet all pious efforts would be rewarded in heaven. Gratitude should beget service, which yields blessings and yet more gratitude.

If there is any freedom from want in this picture, it comes not through sun and rain on fields, or through national security, but through Christ's people following his example and assuaging the grievous calamities of the poor and oppressed. Freedom from want is not a guarantee, but a goal. And it's going to take a lot more work than the most lavish turkey dinner.

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N.B., while we're on the subject of gratitude, many thanks to the folks at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, who transcribed this sermon and made it available online.

Image: The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.